Entering his second season with the Raiders, Marquel Lee has already twice seen the team add a former All Pro veteran middle linebacker and plant them ahead of him as the starter. Last season it was NaVorro Bowman who the team signed after week five, and this offseason it was 35-year-old Derrick Johnson.
That isn’t to say Lee wasn’t given a shot. He absolutely was given that. The 5th round pick was the starter for the first five games of last season, but it was clear he had some shortcomings that made it impossible to keep him on the field for all three downs. Specifically, it was his coverage.
Bowman wasn’t known for his coverage skills, but he held his own. The veteran linebacker even had the Raiders first interception of the season... in week 12. Derrick Johnson’s best skillset at this point in his career is his coverage abilities.
Johnson got the start in the first preseason game, but there isn’t much the team needs to see from Johnson at this point in his career. Lee came in the game on the second defensive play and immediately stuffed a run for a one-yard gain.
Lee would play just 15 snaps and in that time he had five tackles. He also played four special teams snaps and made a tackle there as well. That’s some fantastic production for such a small amount of time in the game.
“There is a guy that really stepped up. He had a great game,” said Jon Gruden or Lee. “He’s physical. I think he’s more and more of a complete linebacker. He’s getting more comfortable in pass coverage. I think he’s a presence in the middle of our defense right now. It’s something that is not going unnoticed with his teammates and coaches.”
The goal for Lee is to be a 3-down linebacker, which Gruden notes that a lot of work, especially while learning a new defense, but that Lee is “earning more and more looks.”
It’s that new defense that Lee credits primarily for his improved play, which is similar to the 4-2-5 defensive scheme he saw at Wake Forest.
“I’m more comfortable in the defense, so I know where I need to be, so I can play faster, be more instinctive in my fits and my coverage,” Lee said.
“It’s been a combination of things. The scheme first of all and the work, having coach Lippincot telling me what I need to focus on during the offseason, what I need to work on and doing exactly that.”
Once again, what he has needed to work on most is his coverage abilities. He can’t be a true middle linebacker if he has to come off the field on third down. That’s been his primary focus.
“Mastering my role as a base MIKE linebacker and then in practice just maximizing my third down reps, trying to get better at that coverage wise.” Lee continued. “Just working at it every day.”
Part of the work has been physical. The 6-3 linebacker played at 235 last season. Now looks more cut and has actually added weight to his frame.
“The wanted me to be a heavier guy so I had to learn how to play at a heavier weight. I’m at like 238-240 now,” Lee said. “Just playing at that weight, being fast at that weight, taking on a lot of blocks at that weight. More functional.”
Middle linebacker is a tough position. You have to be able to direct the defense, stuff the run, and drop into coverage with equal proficiency. It requires a player to be big, smart, fast, and agile — qualities that aren’t often found in one guy. Lee is attempting to be that guy. And if he keeps proving his worth in these preseason games behind the veterans, he will either take the field with them, or replace them altogether.